Archive for the ‘Employment’ Category

Grand Theft Wage

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Several weeks ago, in one of his few legislative successes, President Trump signed a bill rescinding the Obama Administration’s executive order on Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces. The order, designed to promote better employment practices by companies doing business with the federal government, instructed procurement officials to consider the labor track record of contractors, which were required to disclose their recent violations.

Business groups, which had attacked the order as a form of blacklisting, have gotten their way, but it is still possible for a federal procurement officer to determine whether a bidder is a rogue employer. It’s simply a matter of plugging the company’s name into Violation Tracker, the free database on corporate crime and misconduct I have assembled with my colleagues at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First.

We’ve just announced the latest expansion of the database: 34,000 Fair Labor Standards Act cases brought since the beginning of 2010 by the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Labor Department. The dataset, covering cases with back pay and penalties of $5,000 or more, represents the recovery of more than $1.2 billion by WHD investigators.

Many of the offending employers are smaller businesses, but wage theft is far from unknown among large corporations. The biggest cumulative amounts collected by the WHD since 2010 came from oilfield services company Halliburton, which in 2015 agreed to an $18 million settlement of alleged overtime violations, and CoreCivic (the new name of private prison operator Corrections Corporation of America), which in 2014 agreed to an $8 million settlement. Also among the top ten are Walt Disney ($4.2 million) and Royal Dutch Shell ($2.6 million).

The wage and hour cases supplement existing Violation Tracker data in two other key areas that had been included in the executive order: workplace safety (OSHA cases) and employment discrimination (cases brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs). We are now in the process of obtaining data on the remaining category — unfair labor practice cases — from the National Labor Relations Board.

DOL administrative actions are not the only game in town when it comes to challenging wage theft, which a 2014 Economic Policy Institute report estimated could be costing U.S. workers as much as $50 billion a year. Some of the biggest recoveries come in lawsuits known as collective actions that are brought in federal court on behalf of groups of workers and often result in multi-million-dollar settlements. Unfortunately, there is no central information source on these settlements. The Corporate Research Project is in the process of piecing together the data from multiple sources and will add it to Violation Tracker later this year.

The issues covered by the Obama executive order are just a portion of what can be found in Violation Tracker. We now have 158,000 cases brought by 42 federal regulatory agencies and all divisions of the Justice Department. The fines and settlement amounts in these cases total more than $320 billion.

Violation Tracker data is now current through late March of this year, but for some agencies there was not a lot of case information to collect for the first two months of the Trump Administration. For example, the Wage and Hour Division, which in recent years usually announced numerous case resolutions each month via press releases, has posted only a handful of such releases since Inauguration Day. There’s no indication that the work of the division has stopped, but it appears that the Trump appointees now running the Labor Department are not eager to publicize enforcement activities.

The Corporate War on Coal Miners Continues

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

The signing ceremony for Donald Trump’s executive order nullifying the climate initiatives of the Obama Administration was staged so that about two dozen miners looked on adoringly as the president claimed to be ending the so-called war on coal. Trump then repeated his promise that the regulatory rollbacks would “put our miners back to work.”

Just about every analysis concludes this is a hollow promise. Trump’s action will have little impact on the long-term decline of coal industry jobs. Even industry figures such as Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, are warning: “He can’t bring them back.”

And even if there is a modest improvement, it won’t include the kind of well-paying jobs that used to characterize coal mining. According to the latest annual report on coal from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, unionized underground mining jobs are now outnumbered three to one by non-union surface mining jobs. The executive order’s lifting of the freeze on federal coal leasing, which is concentrated in Western surface mines, will increase the gap.

This did not happen by accident. The coal industry has been seeking for years to weaken the United Mine Workers by shifting work to non-union operations or by spinning off UMW-represented mines as weak stand-alone companies. The industry’s biggest producer, Peabody Energy, did this in 2007 when it shed Patriot Coal, which subsequently declared bankruptcy and was given court approval to slash wages, pensions and healthcare benefits of its workers and retirees. Today Peabody has only one operation left with a UMW presence. Anti-union animus was pronounced at various companies — especially Pittston and Massey Energy — that merged into what is now called Alpha Natural Resources.

One consequence of de-unionization is that coal managers can more easily cut corners on safety. This was seen at Peabody more than three decades ago. In 1982 the company pleaded no contest and paid a penalty of $130,000 to settle federal charges that it falsified dust-sampling reports submitted to the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) as part of the monitoring of conditions that can cause black lung disease. In 1991, after a year-long investigation by MSHA, Peabody once again stood accused of tampering with coal-dust test results. It pleaded guilty to criminal charges and was fined $500,000, the largest penalty that had ever been assessed for a non-fatal violation of federal mine safety regulations.

In 2006 a dozen miners died in a methane gas explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia operation, which had been cited by MSHA for “combustible conditions” and “a high degree of negligence.” During 2005 the mine (then run by International Coal Group, which later merged into Arch Coal) had received more than 200 violations, nearly half of which were serious and substantial.

Allegations of poor safety practices at a non-union mine surrounded an even worse disaster — the death of 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch operation in West Virginia in 2010. The mine had been cited more than 50 times by MSHA in the month before the explosion and had racked up 1,342 violations over the previous five years. In 2011 Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey after the accident, had to pay $209 million to settle federal criminal charges.

If Trump really wanted to do something to help coal miners, he would beef up MSHA’s enforcement capacity and embrace labor law reforms that would help the UMW regain lost ground. Instead, he is proposing a 21 percent cut in the budget of the Labor Department, of which MSHA is a part, and staying silent on the anti-worker practices of the coal companies he is so eager to assist.

Labor Unenforcement

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Once upon a time, a key component of American populism was the demand for stricter controls over big business: in other words, regulation. Today, the country’s purported populist in chief is instead promoting the dubious claim that deregulation is what will benefit the masses. Through executive orders and now with his administration’s budget blueprint, Donald Trump is seeking an unprecedented rollback of workplace, environmental and consumer protections.

There are signs that at least one agency in the Trump Administration may not waiting for the legal changes to take effect before providing relief to business. In the eight weeks since the inauguration, the regulatory arms of the Labor Department appear to have been in a near state of suspended animation, at least in terms of their announced enforcement activity.

Take the case of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Since the inauguration it has not posted a single press release about an enforcement matter on the DOL website. This compares to more than 70 releases — about the filing of cases or the imposition of penalties — posted during the same period last year.

This can’t be explained by delays in a new administration getting up and running. During the comparable time period for the newly installed Obama Administration in 2009, OSHA made more than 30 enforcement announcements.

A similar pattern can be seen at DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, which under the Obama Administration aggressively pursued employers that violated minimum wage, overtime and other provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Since January 20, the WHD has made only one case announcement. By contrast, during the same period last year WHD announced 35 cases in which an employer was being sued or had settled allegations by agreeing to pay back wages and sometimes a monetary penalty. In 2009, right after Obama took office, the WHD announced 14 cases in the same period.

Other parts of the Labor Department are also quiet. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which makes sure government contractors comply with anti-discrimination laws, has not issued a single press release since inauguration day — on enforcement matters or anything else.

Enforcement is handled by career employees of the DOL, whose activities should not be affected by the delays in filling the Labor Secretary’s job, unless their work is being impeded by Trump’s appointed “beachhead” officials now running the department.

There are no indications that the work of DOL agencies has been suspended. Yet the almost complete disappearance of enforcement announcements may indicate that the Trump appointees have been holding up case resolutions or are choosing not to publicize those matters that have been resolved.

In any event, this enforcement lethargy may be a rehearsal for things to come. The Trump budget blueprint calls for a 21 percent reduction in DOL funding, and while the document provides limited details on what would be targeted, a cut of that size is bound to impair enforcement. How many workers who voted for Trump were seeking more dangerous conditions on the job and greater vulnerability to wage theft?

UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that despite the absence of OSHA press releases the agency is still posting enforcement actions on its website on this page, which shows numerous cases since Inauguration Day.

Companies Fighting the Travel Ban Should Also Oppose the Labor Department Nominee

Thursday, February 9th, 2017

Trump’s scandal-ridden choice for Labor Secretary, Andrew Puzder, is yet another of this administration’s nominees who don’t believe in the mission of the agency they intend to lead.

The website through which he is promoting his nomination is headlined: “Job creation is what I stand for.” That’s fine but it has little to do with the primary purpose of the Department of Labor: worker protection. The rest of that website, which has nothing to say about that purpose, instead clearly signals that Puzder will seek to weaken or dismantle the regulations DOL is supposed to enforce.

We can expect that will include rollbacks in protections relating to occupational safety and wage theft, but in light of the current debates on discrimination, it is worth remembering that DOL is also home to the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), the agency charged with fighting racial and other forms of bias in the workplaces of companies doing business with Uncle Sam.

OFCCP has long been targeted by the regulation-bashers, and now there are reports that an effort to abolish the agency that began during the Reagan Administration may get revived. This would go along with the move to reverse the Obama Administration executive order on Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces.

I’ve been thinking about the OFCCP because it is one of the agencies (along with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) included in an expansion of Violation Tracker that my colleagues and I will release soon. We’ll be including entries for the more than 200 cases OFCCP has resolved since the beginning of 2010. The companies involved, which together have paid fines or settlements of about $51 million, include well-known firms such as Tyson Foods (six cases), FedEx, Cargill, Bank of America, General Electric and Comcast.

In the case with the biggest settlement amount, FedEx had to pay $3 million in 2012 to settle allegations that  it engaged in discrimination on the bases of sex, race and/or national origin against specific groups identified at 23 facilities in 15 states.

The OFCCP has been showing a growing interest in the practices of high-tech companies. Last year it got Hewlett Packard Enterprise to pay $750,000 to settle allegations of racial discrimination in hiring at a facility in Arkansas. In the closing days of the Obama Administration, the OFCCP brought suit against Oracle for discriminatory practices shortly after it filed an action against Google for refusing to provide compensation data for its Silicon Valley headquarters during what the agency called a routine compliance evaluation.

Google is among the scores of high-tech companies that have come out in opposition to Trump’s travel ban. That is laudable, but if these companies are serious about their opposition to discrimination they should also make sure they are in compliance with the OFCCP and speak out just as forcefully against any effort to undermine the agency.

Note: A state court in California just postponed until June the starting date of a trial in a case in which Puzder’s company CKE Restaurants is accused of age and disability discrimination.

The Trump Transition and Wage Theft

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

If Donald Trump really were a champion of the working class, one place you would expect to see it reflected would be in his plans for the Labor Department. The supposed champion of blue collar Americans should be making sure that the agency most concerned with the world of work is reoriented to their needs.

Given what we have learned about the Trump transition so far, it will come as no surprise to hear that things seem to be moving in a very different direction. The person put in charge of the DOL transition is J. Steven Hart, chairman of the firm of Williams & Jensen, which calls itself “Washington’s Lobbying Powerhouse.” Hart is a lawyer and an accountant who worked in the Reagan Administration but his firm now lobbies mainly on behalf of large corporations such as the health insurer Anthem and Smithfield Foods.

He may provide other services for big business.  In a 2007 article in The Washingtonian about DC’s top lobbyists, Hart was described as “the man corporations call when they are having trouble with labor unions.” There is not much in the public record on Hart’s activity as a union buster, which may mean only that he worked behind the scenes.

One thing that is known, according to the BNA Daily Labor Report, is that Hart has lobbied recently on behalf of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) on the rule formulated by the Labor Department to update overtime eligibility to thwart abusive employer practices. That association has made no secret of its strong opposition to the rule, which is scheduled to take effect on December 1. It put out a press release denouncing the rule as “burdensome” and vowing to work with other business interests to fight it.

The board of directors of the IAAPA includes a representative of the Walt Disney Company, which had has compliance problems with the Fair Labor Standards Act. For example, in 2010 Disney agreed to pay more than $433,000 in back wages to settle DOL allegations regarding off-the-clock work.

The overtime rule is a glaring example of the contradictions in the emerging Trump Administration. The rule would be of enormous benefit to many struggling lower-income workers who are denied overtime compensation under exemptions that were supposed to apply only to high-paid salaried employees. Their plight has amounted to a form of wage theft.

One group of employers that have frequently been implicated in overtime abuses are dollar store chains such as Family Dollar and Dollar Tree. These cases often involve assistant managers who are not really managers and are compelled to perform routine tasks in stores that are chronically understaffed. After losing an overtime lawsuit and hit with $36 million in damages, Family Dollar appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court (and lost).

It’s likely that Trump supporters are a lot more familiar with dollar stores than those who voted for Clinton. Do they really want to make it easier for those corporations to engage in wage theft against relatives and friends?

Tech vs. Jobs

Thursday, October 13th, 2016

On those rare occasions when the current presidential race deals with policy rather than personalities, the focus tends to be on trade and immigration. Yet there is a potentially much greater threat to the well-being of U.S. workers that is receiving little attention: the technology revolution.

Corporations such as Apple and Facebook promote the idea that digital technology is enriching our lives. In some ways it has: it is easier than ever to keep in touch with far-flung friends and acquaintances, to purchase a vast array of products, to access an endless variety of music and video, and much more.

Yet one thing the tech industry has failed at miserably is giving people opportunities to make a decent living. A front-page article in the Wall Street Journal presents the dismal facts: The tech industry has enriched its investors but does little for the U.S. workforce. In fact, the Journal points out, domestic employment in the computer and electronics hardware industry has fallen nearly 50 percent since the beginning of the century, while the much smaller software workforce has seen only modest increases.

More evidence can be found in a report on data centers just published by my Good Jobs First colleague Kasia Tarczynska. It shows that these facilities, which make up what is known as the cloud, each create only a few dozen jobs. Yet state and local officials, desperate to show they are doing something to encourage employment growth, shower tech giants with subsidies that average nearly $2 million per job.

One tech company that has been hiring a lot is Amazon, which has doubled its workforce (to more than 200,000) over the past couple of years while creating the distribution network necessary for rapid delivery. There are two problems, however. The first is that most of these new positions are lousy warehouse jobs. Amazon has developed a reputation for brutal working conditions — and is aggressively fighting unionization. The second is that many of these jobs will not last for long. Amazon is investing heavily in automation, including the purchase of Kiva Systems, a firm specializing in warehouse robotics. And it continues to experiment with drones designed to replace UPS drivers.

Not only is the tech industry failing to create many jobs in its own operations, but it also is on the verge of destroying large numbers of positions in other sectors. The prime example is the rush toward self-driving vehicles. While there has been some (probably not enough) debate on safety, little has been said about the employment impacts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 9.5 million people work in occupations relating to transportation and material moving. A substantial portion of these — especially truck, bus and taxi drivers — are threatened by the rush to autonomous vehicles.

After being decimated by offshoring, the U.S. manufacturing sector has been recovering, but as a consequence of digital technology and robotics today’s plants require far fewer warm bodies.

Advances in artificial intelligence mean that automation-induced job loss will not be limited to blue collar occupations. Even the professions are not immune.

The tension between technological progress and the needs of workers is, of course, an old story. Yet one lesson never seems to sink in: society needs to prepare for the upheaval and make sure that there is a just transition for the workers who are displaced.

Fighting Wage Theft in the Senate Cafeterias

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

Trade deals tend to be the focus of many discussions these days about stagnant wages, but it’s important not to forget the role played by old-fashioned repressive management. Such a reminder just emerged in a case brought by the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division involving lousy working conditions at the very heart of U.S. policymaking.

DOL found that Restaurant Associates and its subcontractor Personnel Plus have been violating the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act by improperly classifying foodservice workers in U.S. Senate cafeterias in order to pay them less than their proper wage. The employer was also found to be engaging in wage theft by requiring workers to begin their duties prior to scheduled starting times without compensation. DOL announced that hundreds of the workers will receive back pay in excess of $1 million.

Credit for the case belongs largely to the workers themselves, who for the past two years have been agitating about unfair working conditions with the help of Good Jobs Nation (which has no organizational relationship to my employer Good Jobs First).

In 2015 workers staged a series of strikes, prompting friendly senators (including Bernie Sanders) to put pressure on Restaurant Associates to agree to a modification of its contract requiring wage increases. Pay rates for job categories were boosted, but at the same time the company forced many workers into lower categories. The Washington Post reported on the underhanded practices back in January, citing as an example a cook who should have seen his pay jump to $17.45 an hour (from $12.30), but he was reclassified as a “food service worker” with a wage of $13.80.

Restaurant Associates is a subsidiary of Compass Group, one of the giants of the international foodservice industry. The UK-based corporation has been involved in numerous other controversies about its labor practices. In 2014 Compass Group USA paid $5 million to settle a wage-and-hour class action case. Earlier this year, UNITE HERE filed unfair labor practice charges against a Compass unit called Eurest for its actions during an organizing drive by foodservice workers at Intel’s headquarters in California.

There are other blemishes on its record. In 2012 New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that Compass Group USA would pay $18 million to settle allegations that it overcharged school lunch programs throughout the state. In 2015 Chartwells, a Compass company, paid $19.4 million to settle another school lunch case, this one in the District of Columbia in which the allegations included poor food quality as well as excessive costs.

Some member of the Senate are now calling for the termination of the Restaurant Associates contract. Deciding what should take its place is not easy. All of the other major foodservice companies have their own accountability challenges. And conditions were certainly not better before the Senate began contracting out the management of its cafeterias in 2008. It used to be known as the “last plantation” because of the poor treatment of workers.

At the very least, the Senate cafeteria workers need a strong union like that enjoyed by their counterparts at the House facilities. The reason they don’t is complicated and involves inter-union relationships. Good Jobs Nation deserves credit for helping bring about the DOL settlement, but a solid collective bargaining agreement would be even better.

Amazon Delivers Exploitation

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

workhardThe 2015 financial results just announced by Amazon.com leave no doubt: the “everything store” is well on its way to dethroning Wal-Mart as the king of retail. Unfortunately, it also seems intent on taking over the role of the worst employer.

Amazon’s revenues leaped 20 percent last year to $107 billion as it dominated online commerce, especially during the holiday season. Profitability remained weak, but that’s a result of heavy spending to build a network of distribution centers enabling superfast delivery. It’s not because Amazon is generous to its 150,000 employees.

On the contrary, lousy working conditions have been a fact of life at Amazon since its earliest years. In 1999 the Washington Post published a story about the pressure put on customer service representatives to work at breakneck speed. “If it’s hard for you to go fast,” one Amazon manager told the newspaper, “it can be hard for you here.”

Amazon — which adopted the employee motto “Work hard, have fun and make history” — successfully opposed union organizing drives at its distribution centers using traditional retrograde employer tactics such as captive meetings and the closing of facilities where pro-union sentiment ran too high.

In the absence of unions, Amazon was able to go on using temp agencies to hire workers, who could thus be easily terminated if they did not meet the company’s unreasonable productivity demands. Amazon even skimped on things such as providing a tolerable temperature level in its vast warehouses. In 2011 the Allentown (Pennsylvania) Morning Call published a lengthy exposé on working conditions at Amazon’s sprawling Lehigh Valley distribution center, where temperatures rose so high during the summer that the overtaxed workers suffered from dehydration and other forms of heat stress. People collapsed so frequently that Amazon arranged for ambulances to be standing by outside the facility. It was only after the story gained national coverage that Amazon broke down and installed air conditioning.

The intense pace of work has also contributed to accidents. In June 2014 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited third-party logistics company Genco and three staffing services for serious violations in connection with a December 2013 incident in which a temp worker was crushed to death at an Amazon distribution center in Avenel, New Jersey. OSHA proposed fines of $6,000 against each of the companies. The agency said it was also investigating a fatality at another Amazon distribution center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Amazon itself was fined $7,000 at its warehouse in Campbellsville, Kentucky.

Amazon has also been the subject of complaints regarding violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, including the failure to compensate workers for time spent waiting in long lines at the end of shifts to be searched to make sure they aren’t stealing merchandise. In October 2015 drivers for the Amazon Prime Now delivery service in California filed a class action lawsuit charging that they were being misclassified as independent contractors and thus denied protection under state laws governing minimum wages, overtime pay and business expense reimbursement.

Reports about harsh working conditions have also surfaced in connection with Amazon’s facilities in Europe. In 2013 a German television program documented the brutal treatment of temp workers brought in from Poland, Spain and other countries to help with the Christmas rush at Amazon’s German distribution centers. The abuses were said to be carried out by black-uniformed guards employed by a security company hired by Amazon, which responded to the scandal by ending its relationship with the firm. Amazon was also confronted by its regular German distribution center employees, who began staging strikes to support demands for higher pay. Amazon, unlike most domestic and foreign employers, refused to cooperate with the country’s powerful labor unions.

Labor protests have also taken place in response to conditions at Amazon distribution centers in the United Kingdom. In 2013 the BBC sent an undercover reporter to work at one of those centers and aired a program describing the hectic work pace and quoting an academic expert as saying that it created “increased risk of mental illness and physical illness.”

Rather than improving working conditions, Amazon has focused on replacing workers with automation, a move assisted by the 2012 purchase of the robotics company Kiva Systems. A February 2015 article in the Seattle Times reported that a new Amazon warehouse in Washington was “teeming with hundreds of Kiva robots. Those are the squat, coffee table-sized gadgets that buzz around, lifting and moving shelves of products, delivering them to workers who pluck items to be shipped off to customers.” It seems that the robots are not making things easier for workers; instead, they are probably helping to intensify the pace at which the reduced workforce is expected to toil.

Labor controversies are not limited to distribution centers. Charges of abysmal working conditions have also been raised in connection with Mechanical Turk, a service created by Amazon to parcel out repetitive online tasks to thousands of individuals who are paid on a piecework basis. It’s been estimated that these “crowdworkers” earn an average of about $2 an hour.

In August 2015 the New York Times published an investigation of Amazon’s white-collar workforce, describing a situation in which employees were compelled to work long hours and were encouraged to criticize one another mercilessly. The rigid system was said to be governed by a series of principles promulgated by company founder and CEO Jeff Bezos that everyone was expected to follow. Those who failed to adjust to the system were dismissed.

When Amazon released its diversity data for the first time in 2014, the percentage of the U.S. workforce that was black or Hispanic was nearly 25 percent, far higher than at other tech companies. Yet subsequent data indicated that many of those minorities were employed at its warehouses and in other relatively low-skill jobs. Just 10 percent of Amazon’s executive and technical employees are black or Hispanic.

Speed-up, wage theft, union-busting, safety and health abuses: Amazon stocks the full inventory of exploitative labor practices.

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New in Corporate Rap Sheets: Food giant ConAgra, touting its Healthy Choice brand, has been involved in a long series of food and workplace safety controversies.

Redistributing Work Hours

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

punching inThe Obama Administration’s new overtime proposal is an important and long overdue reform, but those who see it primarily as a way to address stagnant wages are missing the point. If the rule works properly, the main benefit will come in the form of time rather than money.

Noam Scheiber, the new labor reporter for the New York Times, exhibited the misconception in a news analysis arguing that the proposal “falls well short of helping substantially increase middle-class wages.” The piece compounded the problem by quoting Sen. Chuck Schumer calling the step “the middle-class equivalent of raising the minimum wage.”

Enacted in 1938, the overtime provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is designed to discourage employers from compelling workers to work excessive hours. The time-and-a-half provision is meant not as a wage bonus but rather as a penalty for firms that overwork their staffs rather than increasing the headcount.

Under pressure from business interests, Congress wrote language into the FLSA providing an exemption from the overtime provisions for executive, administrative and professional employees. The rationale was that such persons would be paid a salary rather than a hourly wage, and their compensation would be high enough to make some extra hours tolerable.

It was left to the Labor Department to define exactly which employees would be covered by the exemption. It chose to set criteria that referred mainly to job content but also set a compensation level below which overtime had to be paid regardless of the nature of the job.

That latter provision turned out to be essential. It would be all too easy for an employer to give a position superficial managerial or administrative responsibilities with the aim of making it exempt from overtime. The problem was that the wage cutoff was set too low, and revisions tended to be slow in coming. After the cutoff was raised to $155 a week in 1975, it took another 29 years before it was increased again.

In the meantime, employers did everything possible to shrink the portion of the workforce eligible for overtime pay. This was perhaps most common in the retail sector, where workers were given bogus titles such as assistant store manager while most of their responsibilities were not managerial or administrative in nature. Once they were off the overtime clock, it was profitable for the real bosses to work them long hours.

Obama’s proposal, which would raise the cutoff to $970 a week, did not come out of the blue. Groups such as the Economic Policy Institute and the National Employment Law Project have been campaigning on the issue for years.

There’s also been a battle going on in the courts. A slew of lawsuits have been brought against major retail companies for misclassifying people as overtime exempt. Earlier this year, for example, a federal judge approved a $30 million settlement of overtime claims brought by so-called managers at Publix Super Markets. Payless Shoesource has agreed to a $2.9 million settlement of similar allegations.

Dollar stores, which are obsessive in their cost-cutting efforts, have been the target of numerous overtime suits brought by purported managers. Dollar General paid $8.3 million to settle one such case.

The employer class is, of course, up in arms over the proposed new standard, making the usual foolish claims about job cuts and loss of freedom. The Washington Post quoted one chief executive as saying: “Everything in this proposed rule is anti-American work ethic and culture.”

That in a sense is true, if one acknowledges that our work culture is now one in which some people are forced to work excessive hours and others, especially in the sprawling retail and restaurant sectors, are kept in involuntary part-time status with unpredictable schedules and not enough hours to piece together a decent living.

A measure of the success of the new overtime rule will be the extent to which it rectifies this lopsided distribution of working hours.

Corporate Subsidies and Economic Inequality

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

inequality_graphicThe intensification of economic inequality, one of the defining issues of our times, has many causes, ranging from the weakening of labor unions to the decimation of inheritance taxes. In Tax Breaks and Inequality, a report my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have just published, we argue that another factor belongs on the list: subsidies given by state and local governments to large corporations in the name of economic development.

This conclusion is based on a mash-up of data from our Subsidy Tracker with two groups of corporations: firms linked to members of the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans and a list we created of large low-road employers.

The first part of the report is in effect a rebuttal to Forbes, which in this year’s edition of the 400 plays up those individuals who supposedly built fortunes entirely on their own (rather than through inheritance). We show that many of many of the super-rich – both those Forbes calls “bootstrappers” and those labeled “silver spooners” – received help of another kind: government assistance to the corporations through which they got filthy rich.

Development subsidies – in the form of business property tax abatements, corporate income tax credits, sales tax exemptions, training grants, infrastructure improvements and the like – are supposed to promote job creation and broad-based economic growth. Yet they are often awarded to profitable, growing companies that do not need tax breaks to finance a project, meaning that the subsidies serve mainly to increase profits. When these companies are owned in whole or substantial part by wealthy individuals or families, especially the billionaires in the 400, the subsidies are serving to enlarge those private fortunes — directly in privately held firms or through stock price appreciation and dividends in publicly traded ones.

We find that more than one-third of the 258 companies currently linked to members of the Forbes list are substantial recipients of subsidies. Ninety-nine of them have received awards totaling $1 million or more. The combined value of those awards is $19.4 billion, or an average of $196 million per company.

Five of the 99 firms have been awarded more than $1 billion in subsidies, including Intel ($5.9 billion), Nike ($2 billion), Cerner ($1.7 billion), Tesla Motors ($1.3 billion) and Berkshire Hathaway ($1.2 billion).

About one-third of the individuals on the Forbes 400 are linked to one or more of the 99 highly subsidized companies, including every one of the 11 wealthiest individuals and all but two of the top 25. These include Bill Gates, whose $81 billion fortune comes mainly from his holdings in Microsoft, which has been awarded $203 million in subsidies; Warren Buffett, whose $67 billion net worth derives from Berkshire Hathaway, which has been awarded $1.2 billion in subsidies; Larry Ellison, whose $50 billion net worth comes from Oracle, which has been awarded $18 million in subsidies; the Koch Brothers, each worth $42 billion from Koch Industries, whose subsidies total $154 million; and four members of the Walton Family, each worth more than $35 billion from Wal-Mart Stores, which has been awarded more than $161 million in subsidies.

The second part of the report looks at subsidies awarded to corporations notorious for stingy pay rates and other low-road employment practices. We identify 87 such companies that have each been awarded more than $1 million in state and local subsidies, for a total of $3.3 billion. Retailers dominate the list, with 60 firms awarded more than $2.6 billion in subsidies. Twelve firms in the hospitality sector (restaurants, hotels and foodservice companies) account for more than $245 million in subsidies. The low-wage companies with the most in subsidies are: Sears ($536 million), Amazon.com ($419 million), Cabela’s ($247 million), Convergys ($202 million), Starwood Hotels & Resorts ($166 million) and Wal-Mart Stores ($161 million).

Eight companies are both linked to members of the Forbes 400 and pay low wages. Listed in order of their subsidy totals, they are: Sears, Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Bass Pro, Meijer, Menard, and Allegis Group. These are all retailers except for the staffing services company Allegis.

Subsidies are not the primary source of the Forbes 400’s wealth, but they contribute to it in a way that makes things more difficult for working families. When large corporations controlled by billionaires are given lavish taxpayer subsidies, the rest of society — especially working families — gets stuck with a larger share of the cost of essential public services. And when those subsidies go to low-road employers, they are promoting the substandard jobs that keep so many people at the bottom of the income spectrum.

By enriching those at the top and helping to impoverish those at the bottom, subsidies are part of the inequality problem rather than part of the solution.